Discover Now: Greenaway

Acclaimed British filmmaker Peter Greenaway takes us behind the scenes on the making of Eisenstein in Guanajuato.




In 1931, at the height of his artistic powers, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) travels to Mexico to shoot a new film to be titled Que Viva Mexico. Freshly rejected by Hollywood and under increasing pressure to return to Stalinist Russia, Eisenstein arrives at the city of Guanajuato. Chaperoned by his guide Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti), he experiences the ties between Eros and Thanatos, sex and death, happy to create their effects in cinema, troubled to suffer them in life.

Awarded Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema at the 2014 BAFTAs, Peter Greenaway CBE, one of the most inventive, ambitious and controversial filmmakers of our time, explores the mind of one of the greatest masters of cinema (in the first of a trilogy of feature films), a creative genius facing the desires and fears of love, sex and death through ten passionate days that helped shape the rest of his career.

Peter Greenaway on the making of EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO


Why Eisenstein?

I discovered the films of Eisenstein by accident when I was 17 in 1959 in an East London cinema. My first amazement was Eisenstein’s STRIKE, made in 1925 when he was at the absurdly early age of 27.

Back in 1959 I was impatient to see what else I could view of this - at that time to me - unknown filmmaker – just eleven years after his death in 1948, aged 50. I checked up on all the films of his Soviet filmmaker contemporaries and apart from a fascination with the rapid turnover and wide range of Vertov’s visual enthusiasms, Eisenstein was the truly great excitement for me.

I had never seen such serious-purpose early-cinema films before – by contrast the Americans seemed showy and sentimental, the Germans extravagant and unbelievable, the French too self-regarding and literary. Here in Eisenstein was serious purpose and fast-moving self-conscious cinematic intelligence – no film in American early cinema moved as fast – and nowhere was there so many shots – and surprising violence of action and a fascination for violence itself. And a curious use of side-stepping metaphor and associative poetry is involved and embraced – all of which I came later to understand as characteristics of montage, the cinema of comparison - film by association – an “only-connect” -cinema, cinema at long last not a slave of prosaic narrative but hopping and skipping about with serious purpose to run like the human imagination runs, making everything associative till everything past, present and future, old and new, both sides of the wall – like Cubism – which so influenced the contemporary Russian avant-garde in painting – though Malevich said that Eisenstein could never join the Russian avant-garde, he was “too real”. Amazing! I had found my first cinema hero.

I have run and rerun Eisenstein’s films ever since, consumed everything I could in translation that he wrote and published, followed all the news about him that seeped out of Russia in bouts of unexpected liberated knowledge.

I visited his library in Moscow several times with each time a different Russian guide, I went to the sites of his film-making in Odessa and St Petersburg, his place of forced Director – exile in Alma Ata in Kazakhstan, his father’s art nouveau architecture in Riga, asking to sleep in a cold deserted apartment there where he was rumoured to have played as a child.

I was not permitted but the concierge gave me an apple from the garden across the street and I ate it in the cold room looking out the window he too may have looked out watching the apple-trees and carthorses. How about that for empathetic association?

I kept nurturing my Eisenstein enthusiasms from all angles. I bought all the Eisenstein biographies - the good ones and the bad ones - had a London painting exhibition called Eisenstein at the Winter Palace, read the Freud material on da Vinci which fascinated Eisenstein, edited political commercials for the London Labour Party, shouted useless abuse at the London American Embassy over Vietnam, and seemingly argued on both sides of the fence for and against the idea that Soviet cinema was all threadbare Cold War propaganda, East and West, ending with the unsurprising and somewhat hopeless plea to deliver “a plague on both your houses”. It was both propaganda and was not propaganda - in the way that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is magnificent propaganda for Catholicism. And indeed why not? Great art is always propaganda for great life. And most cinema frames for low ambition, scary of over-reaching, scary of lèse-majesté, scary of the taunt of high purpose, even scary of considering that cinema is art, scary indeed that the feature film can rival the highest successes of painting and the symphony, the novel and the theatre play.

Cinema in 1930 was, and still is, largely throwaway ephemerality unhitched to any programme, conceit or agenda of content or – especially for me –theory of language. Having been trained as a painter – most cinema as compared to painting - is remarkably uninterested in language. It’s largely genre-lead content conceived as illustrated literary, dialogue-directed stories - forever leaving you dissatisfied. Cinema is far too rich a medium to be left merely to the storytellers. Bring on the writers! That’s practically all we hear isn’t it? The syllabus of every film-school. No wonder we have a text-based cinema all over the world. Every film you have ever seen started life with a text. We have a film industry that illustrates text. A cinema of conductors and very rarely composers. Why were, and are, so many people under-selling the medium?

So you can see why Eisenstein has been so satisfying. Big ideas consciously promoted in a rush of imagery. Intense interest in putting those ideas down as images not as deodorised illustrative texts. Rembrandt said in hopeless hope, “Just because you have eyes does not mean you can see”. Eisenstein says in irony, “ I suffer from too much looking”, and Derrida said with wisdom, ” The image always has the last word”.

There were of course mysteries about Eisenstein – perhaps the largest aesthetic mystery for me was how come the first three great films – Strike, Potemkin and October were unlike the last three great films – Nevsky, Ivan and The Boyar’s Plot?

There was a change of film manufacture between the early and late films for Eisenstein and not just because of Stalin’s vindictiveness, blind sidedness and general animosity to all that was beneficial. I grew to believe it was because of those years – 1929-1931 – that Eisenstein spent away from Soviet Russia - that the change had taken place. Away from your own country and surroundings you give yourself license to behave differently.

Travelling across Russia and then Western Europe and then America, and then Hollywood which Eisenstein was convinced was a country all on its very own, he met every important cultural celebrity alive – he handshaked them all.

He had met Malevich, Mayakosky, Prokoviev, Shostakovich, Gorky, Pudovkin, Dovzenko, Vertov, and now he was to meet Joyce, Brecht, Cocteau, Shaw, Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, Stroheim, von Sternberg, Flaherty, Chaplin, Stravinsky, Disney, Corbusier, Bunuel, Dietrich, Garbo, Mickey Mouse, RinTin-Tin …. and all those visionaries in Mexico - Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Orozco, Siqueiros, - all those contacts that gave him new perspectives he was unlikely to have back in the winter-dark tenements of Moscow. He was endlessly curious, had an imagination like an elephant sponge (he later bequeathed his brain to the neuropsychologist Luria) and he was hit hard with emotional traumas of sex and death in Mexico.

“This country is astonishing. The large things in life continually hit you on the head – in the pit of your stomach, in your heart. Nothing can be superficial”.

The fascination with the endless stimulations of sex and death – Eros and Thanatos – the very beginning and the very end – both unknowable to the subject and victim – the non-negotiables – you don’t ask for or agree to the first and you don’t have any say in rejecting the second. Eros and Thanatos sober up your image of yourself, reduce exhibitionism, demand attention to make use of your mortality – and hit Eisenstein hard in Mexico.

He never lost track or denied his cinematic intelligence, but I believe abroad, away from Soviet conspiracy and paranoia and all that dialectical materialism which no-one really understood how to define, leave alone how to support - away from the deadening hand of Stalinist Russia, and essentially being alive in the living-in-the-present country that is Mexico, he emotionally matured, learnt cross-identifying empathy and his later films demonstrated as much.


The Mexican Encounter

Palomino Cañedo, Eisenstein’s Mexican guide, teacher of comparative religion, responds to Eisenstein’s curiosity, and through him we learn of the way Mexicans customised the introduction of Christianity to suit their life-style, the varied quality of their rich cuisine, and the predatory Camorrista, the organised Robin Hood style folklore criminals who feed off foreigners. But the imagery of the Mexican community of Guanajuato in the film also tells us a great deal more – its marketplaces, church façades, bell-towers, labyrinthine tunnels, shoe-shiners, whores, itinerant fried-banana-sellers, café culture, noise, music, parched landscapes, hot streets, shaded cemeteries, charnel houses and the tragedy of its frequent mud-slides, and the imported grandeur of its opera-house with its shower-baths, bars and uniformed servants. Cañedo’s Mexican fascination is his country’s way of the dead, the timing of the All Saints’ Day October 31st celebrations, parading of fiesta skeletons in the presence of children, the ease of Death’s presence in cemeteries, the mummified corpses in the town’s famous museum of the dead all balance Eisenstein’s obsession with Russia’s revolution fervour. Soon, Eisenstein shares Cañedo’s fascination, dressing up in skeleton masks to hilariously evaluate the way he will die, learning to dance with skeletons, parading in children’s fiesta processions, and licking sugared skulls.

Eisenstein arrives in Guanajuato on the 21st of October, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution is on the 25th and ten days are up on the 31st of October when Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead. These are the dates that circumscribe Eisenstein’s love affair and led Eisenstein to say: “These are the ten days that shook Eisenstein. I had to come to Mexico to go to Heaven”.


Eisenstein’s self-confessed failure with his Mexican film Que Viva Mexico was due to his inability to edit the rushes. He never saw the rushes again after he left Mexico. They eventually ended up spread across the globe – in Mexico, Los Angeles, Moscow, Paris, New York, as interested parties and vested interests shared the spoils. However we might view the dramas of post-production – squabbling over rights, revengeful playing of rival interests, unpaid laboratory bills, poor production organisation, Soviet intransigence, Upton Sinclair’s financial worries – all served to deny Eisenstein his editing rights. Eisenstein’s petulance did not help, and were not assisted by his unwise action of packing erotic drawings in suitcases he knew would probably be opened by customs officials. Despite every excuse and justification, the film in its various public forms all edited by people who were certainly not Eisenstein, failed to resonate because Eisenstein’s greatest skill was as an editor. And he never was allowed to practice it on his Mexican film. Several films have been edited out of Eisenstein’s Mexican material – not least a version by Marie Seton and a version by Eisenstein’s one-time assistant and later the favourite Stalin film-maker Alexandrov. At best, these non-Eisenstein edited versions – provide a showcase for the shot footage but lack sparkle, invention, insight and cinematic élan. They do not resound.

In EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO we are not in any way remaking a version of Que Viva Mexico but we have been only too aware of the significance of editing, and we have self-consciously concentrated on making the editing vocabulary noticeable in the service of everything else a film needs. Changes of pace – cutting sequences very fast to parallel Eisenstein’s sometime manic desire to communicate, cutting sequences very slow to parallel the languor of emotional pathos, list-making, contrasting highly dialogue-heavy scenes with sections of dance and very silent landscape shooting. Pairing stills with moving film, and sections of extreme close-up with very architecturally wide dioramas. Thanks to the imaginative use of the Director of Photography, Reinier van Brummelen’s use of the stills camera as well as the movie camera, the film is full of photographic-cinematic cross-links that reference still-photography as well as moving - Muybridge to Ansel Adams, and Man Ray silhouettes back to Eduard Tisse complying with Eisenstein’s demand for under-lighting and back-lighting with the use of grids and perforated shadows and deliberated “moving-paintings”. There is conscious jump-cutting to emphasise agitated discontinuities. And a deliberately crossing of the line to disorientate, using sections of looking at the same identical material through different visual perspectives, inter-cutting conventional enough cut-and-paste escapist illusionistic drama with artificially placed speeches to camera. And there is some animation of Eisenstein’s erotic drawings.

There can be no surprise that Guanajuato the location itself - of the film and the film’s title - is a major player in this film. It was the excitement of that very visual and photogenic location that propelled the whole film into being. There is a great deal of both “visible” and “invisible” green screening such that it is suspected where it is not and is not where it could be expected. Much of this total vocabulary was anticipated. Some of it was not and is the product of long hours in the cutting room with the very imaginative and talented editor Elmer Leupen.


Truth or Fiction?

One of the original intentions of this project was to make a documentary about Eisenstein’s attempt to make the film Que Viva Mexico – intentions that developed into a feature film which nonetheless has a considerable amount of included documentary evidence – stills and film clips of Eisenstein himself, the celebrated cultural figures he met in Russia, Europe, America, Hollywood and Mexico and excerpts from his feature films.

I am always suspicious of the so-called truths officially offered by the documentary. There surely can be no such thing as History, there can only be historians. History is unvisitable.

There is never definitive proof. At best we are victims of the subjective gaze. And, as they say, History is only a branch of literature. He who writes best is the dictator of history. Every documentary has a vested interest which erodes and distorts a belief in any sort of truth - so we transformed those documentary concerns into a feature film where I can hope to get at some verities by you knowing that I am purposefully inventing. This goes someway to explaining why some characteristics of the structure of the form of the film is often as a cinemascope triptych –
giving me cinematic screen-space to put the documentary evidence and the reconstructed feature-film evidence generously side by side for your comparison.

And once having invented such a format we necessarily have expanded its usages, for emphasis, for punctuation, for list-making which Eisenstein enjoyed, and ultimately, as with Abel Gance who Eisenstein met and admired, to satisfy the pleasure principle.

We have indeed made quotations from Eisenstein’s cinema itself with excerpts from Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October – the three major montage-heavy films of Eisenstein made in Soviet Russia before his trip to America.

What was fact, what was fiction? Who’s watching? Who was a witness? Who’s telling? Eisenstein’s travels were well documented. Many people, conscious perhaps of the great man abroad, were writing diaries, keeping journals, sending letters, taking photographs, recording the numerous incidents of his anecdotal life.

It seems Eisenstein was often out of order, behaving badly and not a little self-righteous in his behaviour, perhaps it was the misjudged overreaction of a foreigner, or a famous filmmaker pushing his luck or a man troubled by his lack of foreign success.

The film EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO is full of direct Eisenstein quotations translated from the Russian. “I am a scientific dilettante with encyclopaedic interests”, “It’s the result of too much looking” “Death should always be ready to take a call”. “I need to leave Heaven in a hurry”. Umberto Eco said translators cannot help but be liars. We put words in the mouths of our heroes which we believe should be there, even if they were not. The film puts them back in Eisenstein’s mouth to serve our purposes.

What else in the film is true? Obsession with shoes and playing with forks? Could a fascination with bell-ringers be an anticipation of Andrei Rublev? An excitement with troglodytes? The letter to Stalin from Upton Sinclair is true as is the telegram from Stalin to Sinclair.

The white suit and the red braces are true. Yellow pyjamas need a citation. Very intimate confessional letters to Pera Atasheva can still be read. He wrote, “ Just now I was madly in love for ten days and got everything that I desired. This will probably have huge psychological
consequences”. It did.

It’s true he did not drink or smoke. He did have an undersexed father and an oversexed mother. It is true he tried to meet Freud but did not succeed. He certainly met Frida Kahlo, Jean Cocteau and Brecht and had Becket as a student. He certainly, like Fellini, scribbled and drew and sketched on hotel notepaper, and he often surprises us indeed with his blasphemous erotica. He enjoyed driving fast cars and accompanied his travels with innumerable books, requisitioning extra transport to carry them. He did have a weak heart and he did die banging on his dacha radiator hoping for help. He recorded as much with his last written words “ At this moment I am having a heart attack. February 10 1948”, making him one of the very few people who could record their own demise. And he certainly was the greatest film-director we have ever known.

Casting Eisenstein

We did not make it so easy for ourselves to find the ideal actor to play Eisenstein, being determined to show on the screen at one and the same time, evidence of the real historical Eisenstein in film and photographs (and there are hundreds of photographs of Eisenstein) alongside a representative Eisenstein played by an actor.

I sought to find the actor who would temporarily give me his heart, soul, brain, body and prick in the services of the depiction of a very human, very emotionally and anatomically naked – vomiting, shitting, weeping, fucking, sweating, howling Eisenstein – this was never going to be a hagiography.

It was hopefully going to be a recognizable cinematic portrait of ten days in the life of a very great filmmaker but there was to be no worshipful genuflection.

What did we want?

We needed a male actor aged 33. In 1931 Eisenstein was 33. St Augustine said we all go to Heaven aged 33, the age of Alexander and Christ at death. Some say Alexander and Christ were the same person, the first time he came with a sword, the second time disappointingly only with a kiss. Eisenstein knew the ironies. Eisenstein was plump, with, as he says himself, anatomically a big head (you can see that big head he inherited in the photographs of his mother) short arms and short legs and big feet, with a studied shock of wild clownish hair; Eisenstein thought of himself as a clown and dressed accordingly. He was no Adonis and we were trying to cast a non-Adonis in a world of actors who, more often than not, try to be. The chances of finding such a lookalike were slim.

We certainly searched in Russia – surely Eisenstein ought to be a Russian. We travelled to Moscow and St Petersburg. We saw long line-ups of hopeful actors – all along the corridors and back again – forty-seven in St Petersburg - all more or less the same age of 33 and all very eager and willing. But we were making an English-language film capable of travelling the world. Few Russian actors spoke English well. Most could not speak English at all.

This was a script of 70 pages of dialogue for Eisenstein. He never leaves the screen. Fast-talking, smart, witty, acerbic, wry, comic, petulant, self-depreciating.

We spent three days in Moscow doing the same. I saw actors in restaurants, ballrooms, TV studios, theatres, airports, on planes. When I could find good English-speaking Russian actors they had all been trained in America for goofy parts as gangsters and hit men and all had Californian accents. And the chances of them playing a great intellect like Eisenstein who could convincingly speak five languages – Russian, German, French, Spanish, English, and tell a joke in all five languages to make the audience roar with laughter and hold a thousand spectators spellbound in all five languages in the Sorbonne or the Goethe Institute or a London cinema - it was not working out well at all. And then when we did tentatively make a shaky short-list – and hoped to think about fixing an Eisenstein lookalike image – there was the next big problem – nudity and sexual exposure. First they said yes to get the part, and then on discussion they said maybe, and then they said perhaps if we gave them a year to learn English and then when they read the script and realized what was being asked of them – of course they said no. I gave up looking for a Russian Eisenstein.

Then after casting sessions in Rome and then in Copenhagen I began to be more hopeful. I saw brief sections from a Scandinavian TV series featuring Elmer Back. He was Finnish from Helsinki with a Swedish family ancestry. He worked hard long hours in undernourished rehearsal rooms in radical theatre in Berlin, knew about all the vicissitudes of impoverished theatrical life. He had an engaging accent already but immediately demonstrated a Russian accent which convinced me, though I could not vouch for that accent being considered authentic in St Petersburg or Vladivostok. But there are a great many accents in Russia and Eisenstein came from Riga in Latvia and apparently only spoke German till he was five years old (his name after all is German for “ironstone”). We were making an English language film and considering all the absurd and illogical conventions of language in cinema, I believed then we had found a viable solution. I certainly still do. Elmer Back as Eisenstein is very very watchable indeed. Also – his Berlin theatrical work included partnership with two fellow Scandinavians who were an obvious Tisse and an obvious Alexandrov. I had finally found my three Russian musketeers.

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